Monday, May 30, 2011

Soldier's Dream by Wilfred Owen

Soldier's Dream
by Wilfred Owen

I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big-gun gears;
And caused a permanent stoppage in all bolts;
And buckled with a smile Mausers and Colts;
And rusted every bayonet with His tears.

And there were no more bombs, of ours or Theirs,
Not even an old flint-lock, not even a pikel.
But God was vexed, and gave all power to Michael;
And when I woke he'd seen to our repairs.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Self-improvement and the Culture of Elitism

I found this article thought-provoking. Long, but worth it.
The mark of superior people, in Ortega’s sense, is that they consider themselves inferior to what they may become. Self-improvement, for all that it smacks of the self-help shelf at Barnes and Noble, is also, in this way, the rallying cry of the only kind of elite worth having.
Every day, I try to make myself better than I was the day before. Fretless bass, working out, reading, thinking, being a decent human being.

Doing anything well requires some hard work. Daily practice, usually, and a focus on the process rather than the outcome. Science has shown people don't value things that come easily to them, and that even modest effort increases perceived value.

Yet our society has evolved to venerate those who are simply gifted, rather than those who put in the work. Somewhere in the 80s, the hard work became a short montage set to a pop song.

Malcolm Gladwell's recent book "Outliers" pushes the idea that 10,000 hours of practice are required for expertise in something. That may be simple to understand, but it also underscores that it is not easy. That kind of time investment requires passion and discipline.

If my previous post was about not taking others for granted, perhaps one can see this one as saying "don't take yourself - your core self - for granted, either."

Sunday, May 15, 2011

No Coasting

In the weightlifting world, there is an axiom that one is either getting stronger or getting weaker - the idea being that either you are regularly training and improving, or you are not, and you are sliding downhill. Over the years, I have refined this idea into "No Coasting".

The second law of thermodynamics tells us the universe tends towards maximum entropy over time. The only defense against this is literally putting energy (or work) into a system. I think about this a lot.

From a Facebook conversation with a struggling musician:
"Ultimately, if you are in the business of selling music, you (or someone in your "organization") have to be somewhat excited and willing to invest/work on the business part, not just the music part.
This is why many bands hire managers, agents, PR people, and the like. It's also why a lot of mediocre musicians succeed - they know they're not the best songwriters/performers/whatever, so they expend effort being the best marketers/salesmen/promoters.

You can't just sign up for TuneCore or drop CDs off somewhere and go "OK I'm done with that part!" any more than you can write your first 10 or 20 songs and say "OK, done with the songwriting part!"

You have to invest time and energy in constantly improving the business side and looking for promotional opportunities. You wouldn't coast as a creative person/artist, and you can't coast as a businessperson, either.

The artists who are most interesting keep challenging themselves by changing and improving their craft. The financially successful ones also continue to look for new business opportunities. Somehow much rock music got the idea into its head that doing that is a bad thing.

I also think about the problems of nuclear waste. In the wake of the Fukushima reactor problems, waste disposal remains a big issue. We need to think about the problem differently: Don't assume today's storage solution is tomorrow's storage solution.

Storing any kind of hazardous materials is seldom a "bury and forget" proposition. You do the best thing you can think of today, and you keep looking for a better solution and move it up as needed. It is ludicrous to assume that WIPP and Yucca Mountain are the best humanity can possibly develop over the next 10,000 years. It's just the best we have right now, and is far better than current temporary storage practices.

We must keep investing effort in the things that are important to us.

Today I have been married to my wonderful wife for 7 years. Every day I see her I feel like the luckiest man in the world. I am so fortunate to have her in my life.

It is easy to "coast" in a relationship, to stop trying to have new experiences, to stop making a bit of effort every day to make your partner's day special, to surprise them. But this is often the beginning of terminal relationship entropy.

Don't coast. If you bring your best effort and attitude to work or the projects you value most in life, why wouldn't you bring it every day to the things that really matter most? It is not a guarantee of success, but not doing this is almost certainly a guarantee of failure.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Mick Karn, fretless bass, and finding your own voice

As far as I'm concerned, there's only one bass player that really mattered in rock music: Mick Karn.

Nearly anyone who plays fretless bass cites Karn or Jaco Pastorious as the inspiration. These two people created a language and style that made every musician in every genre think about bass in a different way.

Karn was originally a bassoon player. He credits learning classical bassoon and other wind parts (he played all the wind instruments on Japan's records, too) with shaping his perspective on bass playing.

It's fairly obvious - Karn's bass lines have far more in common with symphonic wind parts than the typical "play 8th notes on the root" that passes for bass playing in most popular music. If nothing else, Mick Karn proves that being educated about different styles of music is critical to making your own music more interesting.

Mick Karn achieved something rare in music, and especially instrumental music: he created a unique, instantly identifiable voice. A recognizable sonic entity. You hear him playing on a record and it is unmistakable.

Finding, or more accurately, developing that voice is difficult but rewarding. It is part of how you stop being a mere copyist or pastiche factory and start being a true artist.

Painters spend entire careers looking for that kind of presence and signature. You know them when you see them - the painters you can identify from across the room. Franz Kline, Magritte, Rothko. I'd put Mick Karn up there with any of them.

That voice can be limiting, I suppose. If you speak with a distinctive accent, people make fun of it. And you end up being reduced somehow: "The guy who plays fretless bass THAT way". "The person who paints everything with dots". "The idiot with the sponges". But I'd rather be made fun of for being unique than blend in with everyone else any day.

I still remember first hearing the sound of fretless bass in Rock School videos and on the Japan compilation "Exorcising Ghosts" that my friend Jen DT gave me (and for which I am eternally grateful, Jen!). I thought it was beautiful and mysterious. I also understood it was very difficult to play and compared to the synthesizer, somewhat sonically limited.

I used to practice instruments a lot, striving for proficiency. But I eventually realized I was more interested in songwriting and composing than being a virtuoso (not that they are exclusive!). For many years, I said fretless bass was the only instrument I'd consider practicing on to get good.

Mick Karn's untimely passing had me listening to his work and I was inspired. I'm not getting any younger, and there's no time like the present. I recently bought a Squier Vintage Modified Jazz Bass Fretless and am teaching myself to play many of his bass parts as well as some things by The Police, Gary Numan (Mick Karn played on "Dance", and Pino Palladino played some great fretless parts on "I, Assassin"), and many of my other favorites.

Fretless bass is a wonderfully expressive instrument, like the human voice in many ways. I don't expect to approach Mick Karn's level of eloquence on it, but I hope to perhaps belch out a few phrases on an upcoming recording project.

Thank you for the music, Mick Karn.

Japan. "Visions of China"

Dali's Car. "The Judgment Is The Mirror"

Japan. "Swing"

Japan. "Gentlemen Take Polaroids"

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Keep It Simple, Sell!

Helen DeWitt is a wonderful and brilliant writer. Her book "The Last Samurai" introduced me to the Japanese word "jinsai" which quickly became my nom du jeu (and is part of this blog's URL!)

This post she wrote discusses notable classical composers writing simple pieces.
"It was Beethoven who felt that the desires of the amateur -- or even of the average professional -- were not worth attending to except when he wrote an easy piece to make a little extra money."
My friend Sid Luscious would say "Beethoven is a dope. Making 'a little extra money' is the whole point! Keep It Simple, Sell!"

I'd agree with keeping it simple, but for different reasons.

For most of my artistic career, I have made a conscious effort to write simple songs: no fancy chords, no tricky rhythms, no odd time signatures, and no compositions that rely on technical virtuosity.

Some of this is motivated by a Sid Luscious-esque desire to "sell out". Because that is part of how you make pop songs that endure - keeping it simple. "Simple" songs are more frequently covered, and can be picked up by people just starting to play instruments.

Some of my pop song simplicity is motivated by my own limitations. My instrumental technical skills are modest. I have relatively short fingers for a guitar player or keyboardist, and this affects my ability to conjure some of the more elaborate chords and parts from my instruments. I compensate by using computers, either to play the difficult parts or to allow me to combine 2 simple parts or chords to create a more complex one.

But most of it is the challenge and discipline of staying simple. Simple songs are difficult to write. It is easy to keep a listener from being bored if you are constantly surprising them with new parts and tricky rhythms. It is more difficult to write a short melody that is both instantly memorable and holds up to repeated listening. 

For my instrumental/electronic/ambient work, simplicity goes by the wayside, or is at least less overt. Instrumental music by definition has no vocals, and this allows people to listen to the music differently and deeper. This in turn requires instrumental composition to be more rigorous, layered, and tricky.